Contract extensions during arbitration seasons aren’t terribly common, especially when a player is just two seasons from free agency. Since Elvis Andrus signed his eight year, $120 million extension in 2013, there have been just three contract extensions handed to players who’ve recorded similar service time. One winter ago, Giancarlo Stanton signed his 13 year, $325 million deal. And over the last few months, the San Francisco Giants are the only club to take part in such an agreement. In November, the Giants signed Brandon Crawford to a six-year extension worth $75 million, and this past weekend they doubled down on their infield, signing Brandon Belt to a similar six-year extension for $79 million. While these extensions are uncommon, Belt and the Giants have achieved a reasonable common ground.
Without the new contract, Belt would have been eligible for free agency after the 2017 season heading into his age-30 season. That would have been Belt’s one big chance at a major contract. His new deal with the Giants will pay him $79 million over six years, which includes the roughly $6 million he was already expected to make this season. Now Belt won’t hit free agency until after his age-33 season, likely precluding him from signing a mega-contract given his age.
Signing a huge contract was actually never a certainty for Belt — with or without the present extension. Power pays and Belt has yet to hit more than 18 home runs in a season — although the raw power numbers are mitigated by San Francisco’s AT&T Park. Belt has recorded just 23 of his 64 career home runs at home, and San Francisco’s park factor indicates that it is the toughest park in which to hit home runs by a pretty wide margin. It isn’t that Belt lacks power; indeed, his .185 ISO since 2011 is among the top-third of all batters regardless of park. He has roughly the same amount of extra base hits at home (98) compared to the road (99), but when he is out of San Francisco a lot more balls leave the yard.
After breaking out in 2013 with a .289/.360/.481, a 140 wRC+, and 4.4 WAR, Belt was sidelined with a broken thumb for much of 2014 and it appeared to affect his numbers, even if he still produced a comfortably above-average batting line in just 235 plate appearances. Unlike the rest of his Giants teammates, Belt has excelled in odd years and 2015 was no different. He nearly replicated his 2013 season in 2015, recording a .280/.356/.478 slash line and 135 wRC+ last year. Given the injury in 2014 and the very good production in 2013 and 2015, it might be reasonable to assume that the two better years are more indicative of Belt’s talent level. Projections, nevertheless, are somewhat skeptical.
Belt’s career wRC+ is 128 — and over the past three seasons it is 134 — yet the projections see a 124-125 wRC+ season for Belt in 2016. The walk rate, strikeouts and power numbers are all in line with Belt’s career, but Belt has recorded a very high BABIP, especially in his most successful seasons. For his career, Belt’s BABIP is .339, with marks of .351 in 2012 and 2013 and .363 last season. Both Steamer and ZiPS have projected a .332 BABIP figure for Belt in 2016. For this season’s projections, that marks the difference between merely above-average production and the All-Star levels of the 2013 and 2015 seasons. Belt’s exit velocity was in the top half last season of all hitters, at 90 mph. That’s good, but not an elite. He posted one of the 10-best hard-hit percentages in the majors last year, but that has not been consistent throughout his career.
The elevated BABIP figures could (somewhat paradoxically) be a function of San Francisco’s suppression of home runs. Belt hit 13 homers on the road and just five of them at home. If Belt had record eight more homers at home instead of doubles and triples, his BABIP would have dropped to .347 instead of .363 last year. For this contract to work out for the Giants, Belt does not need to keep his BABIP way up. He needs to be merely average overall when the contract pays him $16 million per year over his four free-agent seasons. The Giants already guaranteed Belt $6.2 million for this season, and the $6 million signing bonus and small salary next season ($2.8 million) are roughly equivalent to his salary in arbitration.
The chart below forecasts a bit into the future to see what kind of production Belt would need to supply in order to justify his salary:
|2018||30||2.5||$8.8 M||$22.1 M|
|2019||31||2.0||$9.3 M||$18.5 M|
|2020||32||1.5||$9.7 M||$14.6 M|
|2021||33||1.0||$10.0 M||$10.0 M|
If Brandon Belt is the player he’s projected to be and ages normally over the next few seasons, he just needs to be a 2.5 WAR player at age-30 to justify the extension. Given the reasonable nature of those projections, it’s fair to ask why Belt would forego free agency in exchange for a relatively modest payday. The simple answer is that Belt simply enjoys playing for the Giants. The team locked up Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey, and Madison Bumgarner. They retain control over Joe Panik and Matt Duffy for many more years. Belt received a partial no-trade clause. Staying in a good situation and receiving $70 million in new guarantees might be worth more to Belt than the potential of a $100 million payday in a couple years.
Compared to the more recent contracts for players with their service time, both Belt and Crawford are on the low end:
|Contract Date||Terms||Career WAR||Prior Year WAR|
|Brandon Belt||4/9/2016||6/$79 M||11.9||4.3|
|Brandon Crawford||11/17/2015||6/$75 M||12.4||4.7|
|Giancarlo Stanton||11/17/2014||13/$325 M||21.1||6.2|
|Elvis Andrus||4/4/2013||8/$120 M||13.1||3.9|
|Adam Jones||5/25/2012||6/$85.5 M||7.8||2.4|
|Joey Votto||4/3/2012||10/$225 M||21.5||6.4|
|Alex Gordon||3/30/2012||4/$50 M||11.1||6.6|
|Troy Tulowitzki||11/30/2010||10/$157.5 M||16.0||5.6|
These are the only contracts signed by players to have recorded at least four, but less than five, years of service time over the past five years, according to MLB Trade Rumors. While the contracts to Gordon and Jones were definite successes and Tulowitzki has been a positive overall, it’s possible there was something of a chilling effect after the Andrus contract. There were no contract signed the next season, and the only one from last season (Stanton’s) was in a different stratosphere and not directly comparable.
The Giants have signed two players to reasonable contracts while also buying out a of the few years past those players’ respective primes. The strategy is somewhat rare: most teams buy out the prime free-agent seasons before players reach arbitration. The Giants appear to have found a middle ground, avoiding the really bad tail years of most large free-agent contracts. They’ve locked up core players and managed to avoid both upside and downside. Brandon Belt has no worries about his play declining prior to hitting potential free agency. This is likely the type of deal that will make it seem like Belt made a poor choice after 2017 and the Giants likely made a poor choice four or five years from now. Right now, which is when the parties decide, it’s a reasonable deal with which both sides can be happy.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.